From education to employment

Michael Gove’s proposals for GCSE reform

After another summer of speculation, Education Secretary Michael Gove yesterday issued a statement concerning GCSE reforms.

The Secretary praises the initial design of GCSEs and developments, which, in his words, have undoubtedly improved the education system, but “the GCSE was conceived – and designed – for a different age and a different world”.

Changes to world economies, technology and increased participation in higher education mean GCSE’s now serve a different purpose to what they used to 20 years ago, he said.

“Now that we are raising the education participation age to 18, now that nations which were slow developers 20 years ago are outstripping us economically, and now that ways of learning have been so dramatically transformed in all our lifetimes, it is right that we reform our examination system.”

Featured changes are set to be the removal of module learning, controlled assessment and coursework from core subjects, and the introduction of brand new exams for core subjects, English, Maths, Science, Humanities and a language to make up the new English Baccalaureate system. Due to the large number of English students, and the recorded lack of Maths, Science, History and Language learners, Gove is enforcing the study of these subjects as a prerequisite for continued study.

While it is extremely important to encourage study over a wide range of subjects to increase greater intellect, the government’s incentives seem to be less concerned with higher knowledge and more directed towards a desire to improve the economy in line with current objectives to compete for business with foreign economies. Forget changing with the times, tailoring GCSE exams could simply be a plan to suit the current government’s international objectives, a short term fix to meet expected figures.

What will this mean for education? We could see a diminished drive for higher education and more apprenticeships and local based training schemes. Gove states that the new baccalaureate system is designed as a foundation “on which further study, vocational learning or a satisfying apprenticeship can be built”.

Predictably, a further push for vocational courses did not escape his speech.

“Following on from the Wolf review we have ensured there is proper assessment, more rigorous content and tighter quality controls on vocational courses. And we’re reforming post-16 funding to improve the education of those taking vocational courses.”

As Neil Carberry, CBI Director for Employment and Skills points out, it is important “to focus on delivering rigorous assessment in our school system, which is part of raising overall achievement”, but to accept an exam system which trains young people to enter a gap in society selected for them by the current government, rather than a path which they have chosen, would be a real shame. However, Gove feels that the current state of GCSEs is neither fit for vocational learning nor for higher study.

“We know that employers and academics have become less confident in the worth of GCSE passes – they fear students lack the skills for the modern workplace and the knowledge for advanced study,” said Gove.

“It is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down. It is time to raise aspirations and restore rigor to our examinations.”

It is right to rigorously monitor the progress of these new examinations, but the government will have a difficult task instilling faith in yet another exam reform, and aspiration in young people who, no matter how many exam reforms take place, will not have the ability to alter their chances in a society if it cannot support them professionally.

Gove admits that the reforms are radical and, after wide consultation, expects the new exam certificates to be taught in English, Maths and Sciences by 2015, with humanities and languages to follow.

Commenting on the GCSE reforms, Glenys Stacey, head of qualifications regulator Ofqual, said it would continue to put standards first and would advise on the timeline for change to ensure that the proposed new qualifications can be implemented safely.

Stacey said in a letter to the Department for Education: “We will advise government on the timetable for change, and say if it is not achievable or if the risks to standards or delivery are unacceptable.

“We will wish to identify the delivery pressure points in the reform of GCSEs and intervene if we need to in order to manage any unacceptable risks. Our role will be to ensure the safe delivery of all qualifications – both new ones and existing ones – during and beyond the period of reform.”

On the move to a model of single exam boards for each subject, she said: “Safe delivery will depend to a large extent on the decisions on qualifications that Government makes, and the effect then on each exam board. There are longer term considerations as well, and we will begin work now on how they might be managed.”

Daisy Atkinson

(Pictured: Education Secretary Michael Gove)

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